We dropped down into the valley and then after heading out of town found the parking lot at the trail head. I think we got there at around 10am, unloaded our packs from the car, put on microspikes to deal with the packed snow trail, and decided to leave the snowshoes behind. My pack weight, with all the water I was bringing, started at 37lbs, a bit much for the climbing we had to do. We had 3 miles to go to the Wilbur Clearing lean to, and made it there at around 12:30pm. The trail started off fairly level, then went up a ridge where we were suddenly exposed to the wind. The sun was mostly out though, so we were warm from that and the effort of climbing, and kept stopping to strip off layers. A large group of college students (maybe a sports team?) came galumphing down the trail as we were climbing it, destroying the nicely hard packed trail by turning it into mashed potatoes - walking got a lot harder after the 20+ of them had passed. We saw one tumble head over heels as he caught his foot, but he bounced up and continued on. I think they were talking about circumcision in one of the clumped up groups. :-) The trail split near a nice look out over North Adams toward the Taconic range (the sunset view from the summer trip), and we dropped our packs there to eat a portable lunch. It was a short spur trail to hit the Wilbur Clearing site from the look out point. We had to break the trail down to the lean to from the area with tent platforms, going past an almost buried bear box. The strong sun light was melting the snow off of the roof of the lean to, we had to dodge water drops as we dropped our sleeping and cooking stuff to get rid of some weight from our packs. We took advantage of the outhouse, and decided to make an attempt at the summit that afternoon after eating something more substantial than trail food.
We tried to get to the AT proper to follow it up, but we really needed snow shoes to follow it, it was taking far too long to get anywhere. We decided to get onto to the snowmobile path/summit road where we could walk quickly. Snowmobilers were doing laps up and down the mountain that afternoon, we saw quite a few machines and riders multiple times. The Fitch lookout point made it look like summit with the war memorial tower was so far away, I wasn't sure if we'd make it up and down before sunset (we'd gone about a mile and a half of the 3.3 miles to the summit by that point). Great views over the valley to hills on the other side where there was a wind farm. There was a couple walking up as well (jeans and snow boots, no packs) that we saw as we came out of the woods, we ended up criss crossing them as we veered off to the Thunderbolt ski hill to take the shorter but steeper way to the summit - microspikes for the win. There were skiers coming down the hard packed/icy run, including a family with kids carried in backpacks. We saw a pair of snowboarders at summit, getting ready to ride down as well. As we were meandering about the summit area, a fairly large group with two rambunctious labs came out of the woods at summit as well, we took each other's pictures, though when I took a lady's phone to snap them, her battery died and I was teased for not knowing how to work an iPhone. :-P :-) There were some pit toilets up there by the TV tower, I probably should have taken my microspikes off before walking on the metal floor, but I didn't slip. It was getting later and we were worried about getting back to camp before dark, so we didn't spend too long at the summit, but headed back down fairly quickly.
We retraced our steps down the Thunderbolt run, but missed the turn off where we'd come in from the snowmobile path. Foe took off breaking trail on what turned out to be the AT, post holing in the deep snow and getting so far ahead of us that he couldn't hear us calling when I convinced Cris that we'd missed the turn. Cris had to go get him, splitting the party and leaving me to promise not to move so that they could come back to me. Standing alone in the forest, body temperature dropping since I wasn't moving any more, on a barely broken snow path with the sun going down and no real way to get in touch with them (my phone had no signal) was an exercise in trust/worry. Just as I was seriously considering going after them, I spotted a flash of colour and they made it back to my position. We backtracked to the Thunderbolt run and looked more carefully for the trail to the road - if we hadn't done this, we'd have been committed to taking the unbroken trail for at least 2 miles as it split off from the road and didn't come close until just before the trail started to climb to the summit of Mt. Williams (winter trail map). We spotted the trail sign this time, a slim brown vertical marker, and made it back to road to hustle down. Sunset over the wind farm looked gorgeous from the Fitch overlook, with sunbeams streaming down from behind the clouds.
I was feeling pretty hungry despite having remembered to eat on a regular basis, and tired from hiking close to 10 miles that day (3 with a pack, all of it on snow) and was happy to see that I wasn't the only one. We started gathering wood for the fire pit when we got close to the trail that would take us back to the clearing, and Forest took charge of fire building duties while Cris cooked. I could get used to trips like this. :-) Cris had mislaid his headlamp so I let him use mine, nabbing it back when I needed to dig something out of my pack. I had my candle lantern on the picnic table (luxury to have a place to sit, though one side had been dripped on a bit), and Cris hung his up on a nail in the roof of the shelter. The temperature started dropping pretty seriously as the sun went down, I could see Forest blowing frozen air to encourage the fire to catch. I made a skin out clothing change, having learned my lesson at Grey Knob and knowing that an open fire wasn't going to dry me quite as much as a stove in an insulated building. Luckily the outhouse was clean and roomy so I could strip to the skin in there, and be out of the wind. The sun was fully set by time I got back from outhouse and saw that Cris had poured boiling water into my tea mug - I'm not sure how long the tea bag steeped, but it was long enough to get very strong and keep me awake that night, which of course I didn't think of when all I wanted was a hot drink. :-/ I had bought a Backpacker's pantry meal, chicken curry with rice, and waiting for it to absorb the boiling water for 13 minutes was hard, though the crackling fire was a nice distraction. I'm going back to boil in bag curries from now on, they're much more flavourful. I ate standing up by the fire to try and avoid spilling anything from the packet (ate with a spork) on my down jacket, as I was counting on it to keep me warm in my sleeping bag. I sat by fire until 9 or so, it was amazing how long the fire wood we'd gathered lasted, but seeing the small pile made it easier to keep the fire small I guess. It was actually a lot warmer than I expected, I could feel the fire facing side of my body getting pretty warm and would occasionally turn around to warm my back. I'd bought a bivy sack just for this trip and was hoping that the wind and waterproof layer around my -5F rated sleeping bag + down overbag would keep me warm enough in what was basically the outdoors - in a pinch we could have put up a tent inside the lean-to though, and I offered Cris and Forest my emergency blanket if they couldn't get warm enough in just their sleeping bags + liners. I zipped myself in and promptly lay awake most of the night. *sigh* I swear I heard a mouse skittering along the back wall of the lean to (someone had left a green sleeping pad there), but tried to convince myself it was just a ball of ice rolling off the roof. I made the fatal mistake of not putting my ear plugs where I could get at them easily and didn't wear them - turns out that my sleeping bag actually has a tiny pocket near the lip, I'm going to have to put a pair of plugs in there so I never forget them. I could hear the guys every time they shifted, or coughed or turned over. Luckily they weren't snoring. :-) My feet were a bit cold since I hadn't brought camp shoes/boots and putting my dry socks in my sweat damp boots after I changed didn't work out so well. I ended up wriggling around to strip off my socks, then realised that the bottom of my sleeping bag had become a little damp. I had to unwind my scarf from my neck and stuff it down into the foot of my bag to wrap up my feet - well, I guess I could have gotten up and found my spare set of socks, but I didn't feel up to leaving my bag.
It was a quick hike down, maybe 1.5 hours? We met up with a couple of guys when we broke out to the look out point, they were making for the summit, and they had snowshoes with them so would be fine on the AT sections that defeated us. The trail down was more frozen today, not thawed out from the colder night time temperatures, so it was less like walking on mashed potatoes, much easier to navigate. Forest was still outdistancing us though, but that was fine as it was only one trail to get to the car and Cris had the keys. :-) We wound through the the forest descending the ridge and it was lovely with the sun streaming sideways through the sparse trees, light and shadow making beautiful patterns on the white snow. We could see the valley floor getting closer as we continued down, and we eventually broke back out onto the road and loaded up the car with our packs. We were pretty hungry and all voted to stop at Rene's Diner in North Adams. I unabashedly ordered the Hungry Man breakfast and promptly demolished it, just giving the sausages to Foe. I had lots of tea as well, I was feeling a tiny bit chilled as the outside door kept opening and I was still a bit sweat soaked from the hike down. The drive back to Somerville was uneventful, though I almost pitched over on my face when I got out to switch seats when we dropped off Forest - my legs were destroyed, though luckily it was all muscular fatigue rather than joint point. I spent the evening happily stapled to my couch, watching a DVD.